The Philippines will push to resolve differences with Beijing peacefully, President Rodrigo Duterte said Tuesday, after Manila’s foreign office threatened to file diplomatic protests for each day that Chinese ships remain moored at a disputed reef in the South China Sea.
This was the president’s first direct comment on the issue since Philippine government officials said that Chinese militia ships were spotted moored together at Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands last month.
“We will continue to resolve the issues on Julian Felipe through diplomatic channels and through peaceful means,” Duterte spokesman Harry Roque said, reading a statement from the president that used the Philippine name for Whitsun Reef. “Whatever differences we have with China will not define our bilateral relations.”
“It will not be an obstacle to the overall positive trajectory of our bilateral friendly relations and our deepening cooperation in pandemic response, including vaccine cooperation and in post-pandemic recovery,” he said.
Julian Felipe, or Whitsun Reef, is within the Philippines’ 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
In recent days, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has engaged in a war of words with the Chinese Embassy over the ongoing presence of dozens of Chinese ships in the area. After cancelling a news conference, which he had scheduled for Tuesday on the issue, Lorenzana announced he had tested positive for COVID-19 and would be observing quarantine guidelines.
On Monday, the Department of Foreign Affairs threatened to file daily diplomatic protests against China until Beijing removed its ships from the Philippine EEZ.
In a Facebook post two days earlier, the Chinese Embassy had said the ships were in Beijing’s territory.
“The Niu’e Jiao is part of China’s Nansha Islands. The waters around Niu’e Jiao have been a traditional fishing ground for Chinese fishermen for many years,” the statement said. Niu’e Jiao is the Chinese name for the Whitsun Reef.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to requests from BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, for comment on Tuesday.
Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea as its own while six other Asian governments – Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – have their own claims overlapping China’s. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the sea that overlap Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.
The Philippines began its coronavirus inoculation program in early March, using vaccines donated by a Chinese state-run firm, Sinovac. Doses of British-Swedish AstraZeneca vaccines arrived and have been given out as well.
“China has been giving us everything but never asked anything from us actually,” Duterte had said in February when the Philippines took delivery of 600,000 doses of vaccine developed by Sinovac.
The Philippines has received 2.5 million vaccine doses from Sinovac and AstraZeneca and has administered 855,000 vaccinations as of Tuesday, according to a document released by Carlito Galvez, the official who leads the government’s vaccine procurement efforts.
Galvez, a former military general, said Chinese vaccines and China’s moves in the South China Sea were separate issues.
“The Chinese government is joining us in fighting against COVID-19,” he said.
“It’s a fight for humanity. This issue of the West Philippine Sea is separate,” he said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
Strike group drills
While the Philippines is pushing for China to remove its ships from the region, American navy ships have returned to the South China Sea.
A U.S. aircraft carrier strike group entered the waterway on Sunday to carry out maritime strike exercises, anti-submarine operations, coordinated tactical training, and other activities, according to the U.S. Navy. It did not state when the exercises were to end.
“It is great to be back in the South China Sea to reassure our allies and partners that we remain committed to freedom of the seas,” said the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group’s commander, Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo.
The strike group includes the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, a guided-missile cruiser, and a destroyer squadron.
Recent U.S. military maneuvers in the South China Sea have drawn criticism from Beijing.
When the same strike group entered the South China Sea in January, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said “it does no good to regional peace and stability for the United States to frequently send military vessels and aircraft to the South China Sea to show off muscles,” BenarNews reported at the time.
A month later, the strike group was joined by the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group in carrying out dual-carrier operations in the South China Sea.
Other countries have been conducting military maneuvers in the region as well. Canada sent the Halifax-class frigate HMCS Calgary through the South China Sea last week while sailing from Brunei to Vietnam, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported.
Meanwhile a Vietnamese frigate conducted combat drills with an anti-submarine helicopter in the Spratly Islands, Vietnamese media reported on Tuesday while not releasing the date of the drills.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.